Race, culture, and human rights advocacy: a personal commitment

On May 21, private corporations, governmental agencies, and non-profit organizations around the world will celebrate the United Nations’ (UN) World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.

Zehra Talib.

The day celebrates the world’s diverse cultures in order to facilitate stronger and more peaceful intercultural exchange. These goals are well-suited for Vancouver, a city that still struggles with racism.

Zehra Talib, the regional coordinator at the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) for British Columbia, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, has always been keenly aware of the racism that exists, not just in Canada, but internationally.

“We know and understand that racism and racial discrimination exists all across Canada, but I want to understand the specific ways in which it manifests in these regions, the unique challenges and perspectives, and how people are impacted,” says Talib.

Just in time for the UN World Day celebrating cultural diversity, Talib notes that on May 12, CRRF, the Canadian Anti-Asian Racism Coalition (CARC)/Coalition Canadienne contre le racism anti-Asiatique (CCRA) and Media Girlfriends will announce a webinar on media training for those interested in supporting anti-Asian racism initiatives in their respective communities.

CRRF was established in 1996 as part of redress efforts for Canada’s racist policies against Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Designated a Crown Corporation, their work involves upholding the human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter, particularly the right to live freely from discrimination.

Nowadays, CRRF’s research, educational, and advocacy work has expanded to other pressing race-based concerns, including systemic anti-Black racism.

A career in human rights advocacy

The desire to understand, the motivation to learn, and the ability to listen are elements of Talib’s advocacy that has followed her throughout her career. Having worked with both historic and newer human rights organizations, Talib’s advocacy reflects the changing environment of diversity initiatives.

In addition to having worked with Amnesty International, Talib also served as a project coordinator and executive assistant for PeaceGeeks, a non-profit started through grassroots efforts that aims to use technology for peacebuilding initiatives. Talib praises their commitment to creating peaceful and inclusive societies where people who are displaced are not forgotten. Her work there involved initiatives that helped newcomers build professional networks and examined how technology can better support new Canadians.

Since joining CRRF in February, she plans to address systemic racism in Canada through values-driven advocacy.

“CRRF will continue to support organizations to combat racism, promote events and education, and build a more anti-racist society,” says Talib, “We are committed to building a national framework for fight against racism in Canadian society and we continue to do this through knowledge-sharing and community support in the pursuit of equity, fairness, social justice, and systemic change.”

In B.C., Talib plans to achieve CRRF’s goals by supporting local organizations that have been granted funds to carry out anti-racism work.

“This will be done through continuing support to our National Anti-Racism Fund grantees in B.C., Yukon, and Northwest Territories,” says Talib, “As we continue to work in these regions, we hope to have more community-based events and initiatives.”

According to Talib, some of the themes for these projects include facilitating more cross-cultural dialogue and awareness as well as addressing systemic racism in various institutions, including those of education, health, and justice.

A personal legacy of peacebuilding

The power of community, whether on international, national, or local levels, is another key to Talib’s advocacy. Like many others working in social justice, Talib sees this work is deeply personal. Her passion for social justice was inspired by her childhood experience as the daughter of Iraqi parents who fled to Canada in hopes of a more fruitful future. As a child, she was not only attuned to the needs at home, but the struggles of people around the world.

“Growing up in an immigrant household, the news was always on in the background, and I’d always overhear conversations about what was going on in the world,” says Talib, “This heavily shaped my mind because I saw disparities in how I got to live, and how others around the world were living.”

Rather than turning away from this difficult realization, Talib saw her awareness as an obligation to serve those in unsafe situations.

“There was a sense of guilt when I looked at the privileges I was granted living in Canada and compared it to my family still living back in Iraq in a conflict zone,” says Talib, “While I still didn’t fully understand why I was given this and others not, I knew I had to do something to merge this gap.”

For those wishing to get involved in human rights advocacy, Talib suggests cultivating an open and curious attitude, learning from written sources but also getting involved with their communities through attending conferences or participating in volunteer work. For Talib, it is, after all, the skills of listening compassionately and speaking out fearlessly that are crucial to social justice work.

“Listen to those directly impacted by the issues, listen to those voices that can be drowned out, and advocate for them when you can,” says Talib, “So much injustice and violations continue to happen because they happen in the dark – we must speak out.”

For more information, please see www.crrf-fcrr.ca/en

For more information on PeaceGeeks, please see www.peacegeeks.org